Album review: Chad VanGaalen – ‘The World’s Most Stressed Out Gardener’: an excellent, multifaceted curio of psych and fun

YOU’VE gotta love Chad VanGaalen, the Albertan singer-songwriter who completely follows his own muse, sees the world his own goddam way, thank you very much; and who’s been delighting those of us in the know for a decade and a half now.

He first emerged blinking into the musical sunlight with his Infiniheart album for Flemish Eye and Sub Pop back in 2005; that’s a territory label split that exists to this day. It was his next album, Skelliconnection, which came out a year later, which was the first I really fell for; it contained whimsical classics such as “Graveyard” and “Sing Me 2 Sleep”, absolutely barenaked from the heart, no artifice at all – you could tell this was song he had to write, not a song he wrote just cos he wanted to be, y’know, booze, cars and fast women. And I’m all for an authentic voice in an artist.

And so his career has wended on, loved by everyone who stumbles across his threshold, with crackers such as Diaper Island, Shrink Dust, a bunch of self-released cassettes; but we’ve heard nothing from him since 2017’s Light Information. I nurture a niggling regret that I somehow contrived to miss him at End of the Road in 2014, by being at some other stage or The Cider Bus or something. Grrr.

So anyhow; what’s Chad been up to, this intervening four years? Turns out: mostly gardening.

Last year, he managed to tend his verdancy as best he could. But it wasn’t a great year for crops, weather-wise; wasn’t a great year all round, was it now? He grew carrots, sprouts and broccoli – and a nourishing new album, which he self-awarded with the titular accolade, World’s Most Stressed Out Gardener.

He likes to eat directly off the plant, he confesses: “I get down on my knees and graze. It’s nice to feel the vegetables in your face” – and we’re told the baker’s dozen of songs he’s cropped are fresh as the day the pod went pop, laid down at home, just so. The perfection of the imperfection; no over-sculpting;

“I’m always trying to get outside of the song—but then I realize I love the song,” he says.

Reportedly, World’s Most Stressed Out Gardener had its genesis as a “pretty minimal” flute record. (There’s only a vestige now, on “Flute Peace”, one of three instrumentals.)

Later it became an electronic record “for a while” and finally, “right at the last second,” it “turned into a pile of garbage.” Aww, c’mon Chad. It’s bloody rich with nutrients. The very stuff of life itself.

These days, he’s mostly happy as the overlord of his own Yoko Eno Studio demesne, bringing in whatever he feels he needs in that moment: a flute, a squeaky clarinet, his basement’s copper plumbing, as brilliantly repurposed as a xylophone for “Samurai Sword”, and gets the hell outta Dodge, “veering away from responsibility.”

Come on, dear reader; let’s sample Chad’s crop. He’s been tending it awhile.

Chad VanGaalen, photographed by Sebastian Buzzalino

“Spider Milk” is a lovely opener, a double-tracked vocal, baroque pop number, recalling fellow countryman Damien Jurado and/or some 1968 lost psych-popper on Deram. It collapses deliciously into a raw, Velvets-style break, all acid guitar and half-lost vocals in a haze of reverb: “an adventure to the edge of the aquarium … we lived on the spider’s milk all summer”, just a couple of the lyrical snatches arising in a tune with a particularly Anglophile, delirious psych feel.

“Flute Peace” is, if anything, too short; a filmic interlude of Japanoiserie, all temples in the mist. It could last three times as long for me, but serves very well as a Money Mark-type prelude for the trippy kosmiche that is “Starlight”, all swirling stellar blips and the smell of incense, bound for inner space in gnomic incantation and acid guitar groove. Damo Suzuki circa 1964 to 1969 in a two-song step, perhaps.

“Where Is It All Going?” is a fair question to ask really, given the state of it all, and it taps into that timeless, yearning evocation that Chad does so well (among many other things he does adeptly); it’s properly leftfield beautiful in that way Galaxie 500 and Bongwater pulled off; rough-edged and all the better for it, the heart of the song beating vivaciously blood-red, and with a gorgeous guitar break to boot, just as Chad reaches for a fine falsetto.

“Earth From A Distance” reels back towards an early-Seventies’ kosmiche, all wide-eyed, wide-screen retro synth grandstanding and bloops, discorporeal voices in the weave; hell, it’s chillout ambient, and we’re only four tracks in. I’d be happy to dine in orbit and watch the globe swirl beneath me with this playing.

“Nightwaves” was a preceding single and it’s a wonderfully lo-fi, psychedelic dream, Chad blurred into a background of shimmering organ, a certain Oriental feel to the keyboard and guitar intervals; if you remember The Revolving Paint Dream and The Sneetches, that kinda vibe. Excellent. It swirls hypnotically around the mantra for our times: “Isn’t your machine calling to you?”
Chad says it’s “… about the endless news feed. Giving in to your digital calendar, when all that’s on your to-do list is checking the online updates. Like a William Gibson waking nightmare, boring marketed as sexy.”

“Plant Music” follows maybe in the footsteps of Mort Garson’s 1976 album Plantasia, as being wholly beneficial to the growth of your greenery; and charts a course through horticultural sonics in cello, plucked and bowed, at once kinda classical and kinda Eastern-baroque in the same way The Beatles’ “Blue Jay Way” is.

“Turn up the radio / I think we’re dead,” Chad sings on “Nothing Is Strange”, another just … frickin … gorgeous raggedy-ass wonky ballad, full of truth conveyed with dirt under its fingernails, halcyon and big in the way Damon Krukowski understands.

“Inner Fire” changes tack again; a tale from the crypt, AM radio Lynchian weirdness; The Cramps reborn in Calgary, a little krautrock, ghostly organ swirls. Music for chrome fins and misty back roads, for lindy bop dresses and cigarettes glued to wisecrackin’ bottom lips. Tread carefully out there. It’s probably just the wind in the wires. You get to seein’ and hearin’ a lot of things out in the back country.

“Golden Pear” circles back through wonk-psych, lo-fi and lush, talking of a “virtual drug lord … she had a mermaid’s skeleton.” Surreal and fun, off-kilter and maybe not perfectly in tune, it’s a shambolic shanty of birdsong and subconscious whimsy. It’s of a piece in some ways with the hallucinatory power-pop of “Nightmare Scenario”, on which Chad sings “You’re stressed out when you should be feeling very well,” and sounds maybe like the engineer’s boot on the monitor rocker Chris Bell might have come up with if he’d be collaborating with George A Romero. Weirdly, bubble-blowingly great.

Never anything but beautifully, eccentrically candid, Chad says of “Samurai Sword”, the song with which he launched the album: “I had just ripped a bunch of old leaking copper pipe out of my basement in a reno job that I jumped into willy-nilly.

“Realizing how magical the pipes sounded, I put them on some dirty styrofoam and banged out the janky beat that introduces the song! Garbage is life.
“It just spilled out in a couple minutes. I didn’t try to stop it because I was smiling like I was just cruising through my neighbourhood. Simple like a sandbox. An ode to the simplicity. It’s hard to let things be simple. But simple is easy on the mind, and being jovial in song is something I find really difficult. Why? What?”

And that dinkin’, plinkin’ pipe beat is the perfect insouciant beat for a raggedly wonderful tale of a samurai sword missing in action, as Chad sings: “Has anybody seen a samurai sword? / It may have fallen off my belt onto the forest floor / And I’m hoping maybe somewhere here has possibly seen it … it has a blade that’s been tempered by the blood of the gods / And a tiny little sticker of a dog.”
The video is down below, go glory in it; it adds about 50% timewise to the album version – but then, what a glorious backstory, weird ‘n’ wunnerful junkyard reclamation beings and all. It’s down below, by the way.

Chad elaborates: “I was drawing black and white plant backgrounds for this song because of the great old samurai movies of the past.

“I like how nature sometimes takes the lead. I was getting all knotted in my mind about the sky. I looked at my dad’s watercolor paintings of a sky, and felt like I couldn’t get the feel right. So, I just borrowed his sky for a scene and then I realized that my dad’s paintings were perfect and already full of real-life energy.

“I used them to finish the video and felt like we got to go on this quest together. In my mind. Fuck time.”

World’s Most Stressed Out Gardener ends with the cello stylings of “Water Brother”, a more introspective and haunting confection in which Chad asks: “Dear people, are you satisfied with what became of this child? … He was a healer of the spirit.” It’s warmly and wonderful elegiac, with the absolute focus of the song remaining a fuzzy everybeing, the more universal for the allusion. Muted guitars click, retrotronic strings swirl bittersweetly and woodwind caresses towards an almost free pastoral jazz climax. All albums should end this way.

I mean, crikey though. It’s less an album and more a constellation, tightly orbiting worlds, here rawk ‘n’ roll in the Las Vegas Grind mode, there pure psych, over there kosmiche, here halcyon songwriting; all tightly in orbit inside Chad’s aesthetic.

It’s also a palimpsest – you can see previous incarnations, as revealed by Chad – the flute, the Moogy thing, scratched back and still present. It also sounds like someone who knows exactly what he wants to do, captures that fizz and brilliance, moves on. Multivalent, multifaceted, it somehow all hangs together and makes for a fascinating and fun and silly and moving and generally a really pretty psychedelic listen.

Oh, and I bloody loved it.

Chad VanGaalen’s World’s Most Stressed Out Gardener will be released by Sub Pop digitally, on CD and on orange-gold vinyl with blue and red trails (!) on March 19th; you can order yours direct from Sub Pop’s Mega Mart; Flemish Eye in Canada, and select independent retailers in North America and in the UK. There’s also a new T-shirt design.

Connect with Chad on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and at his website.

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